St. Albans kid

St. Albans softball team members surround William Darabos after surprising him at his Little League game this summer.

With what St. Albans has coming back and what it has coming up, the Red Dragons may be the dark horse team to watch next year in prep softball.

Included in those returners are all nine of its opening-day lineup, including first-team All-State pitcher Kendall Stoffel and other All-State selections Gracie Payne (second team), Jillian Holley (special honorable mention) and Alivia Nunley (honorable mention).

But perhaps just as important as the talent returning to the field is the team’s heart and soul sitting near the bleachers — one that has no plans on going anywhere.

It comes in the form of 10-year-old William Darabos, who met and immediately endeared himself to the team during practices before fall ball last season.

Darabos was born with spina bifida and has been paralyzed from the waist down since birth. He also has a shunt in his brain to relieve fluid from his spine, but make no mistake, young William knows his stuff and can spout off names, statistics, scores and details from games from last season with ease.

“I’m their number one fan,” Darabos said. “They’re good to me.”

And there the unique relationship between a young fan and a team is better illustrated.

Darabos’ involvement provides him a sense of belonging, to the point that he falls to tears trying to put it all in words. For the girls and coaches, his presence has provided perspective and a sense of playing for something greater than wins.

“We do play for William and he’s made me a better coach,” SA coach Christian Watts said. “He means everything to all of us involved.”

It started innocently enough with a stroll at the track last fall for William and his father Joey. The team was on the softball field practicing and it immediately caught the attention of William, who was enamored.

“I watched them play a little bit and they were really, really good,” William Darabos said. “So I wanted to watch them again.”

“He watched them practice and they immediately welcomed him,” Joey Darabos recalled. “They took him under their wing and took them in as one of their own. He’s one of their squad, he truly is.”

After noticing his presence, Watts went over and initiated a conversation with the two. Ever since then, William Darabos has become a fixture during practices and games, no matter the time of year.

Soon after, players began forming relationships with the youngster as well, to the point that parents call to volunteer to take him to away games.

“It’s cool and it just warms the heart,” Joey Darabos said. “He’s truly one of theirs.”

The situation especially hit home for Watts, whose childhood best friend was restricted to a wheelchair until her death at age 11.

“Last year we started 17-2 and we went into a slump and I had a heart-to-heart with the girls,” Watts said. “I told them for that little boy — we don’t have professional teams and I’m not saying we’re on the same level as WVU and Marshall or other universities around here — but to William, every game is the Super Bowl, it doesn’t matter.”

Ask him who his favorite player is and the question can’t be completed before William blurts out Stoffel’s name. Kendall and her sister Sydney, who graduated this spring, have in particular formed a special bond that includes visiting William at the family’s home.

“After he started coming around, Christian came up to me and said, ‘You are his favorite player,’” Kendall Stoffel said. “So every game, I go over and talk to him and fist-bump him. If he’s there, I want to play to where I make him feel proud, like he has something to do with the win. I want to make sure he has a reason to pick me as his favorite player. I want to play to make him happy and he makes everybody better players as a whole. To put a smile on his face makes us all feel good.”

After a fall ball game, the entire team signed a ball and presented it to William, and since the bond has only grown tighter. William often sports a St. Albans coaching jacket and was presented with an honorary team captain plaque at the team’s postseason awards banquet. Watts was named the coach of the South squad in the North-South softball series and William was listed as an assistant coach and hung out in the dugout as the North and South teams split a doubleheader.

“That was really fun except for the rain,” William Darabos said, referencing three rain delays during the course of the day. “I met a nice girl from Sherman and the girls from Hoover, Hurricane and GW. They’re good players.”

At the team’s senior night William presented the team’s upperclassmen with flowers and balloons. This summer, the team has reciprocated by surprising him at his Little League game and at a boxcar derby.

“Three of us [Sydney and Kendall Stoffel and Payne] made shirts that said ‘William’s No. 1 fan’ and he thought it was the coolest thing,” Kendall Stoffel said.

The team also made a neon green sign with their signatures on it for his baseball game.

“It surprised me,” William Darabos admitted it. “Dad didn’t even tell me, and he knew. They stayed the entire game and watched.”

Along with the growing relationship has come a growing understanding of the game and developed competitiveness. William lists an 8-3 home win over Parkersburg as the season’s highlight and a 4-3 late-season loss to Nitro as the low point.

He’s kept track of postseason honors and was especially thrilled when Kendall Stoffel earned her first-team selection.

“She’s really good to me and she always comes over and I was just really proud of her,” he said. “We just talk and stuff, a lot about baseball.”

During the interview, William guaranteed two straight Class AAA state championships for the Red Dragons, some pretty lofty expectations. But if the team doesn’t quite accomplish that, it won’t be for a lack of effort with Darabos providing extra motivation — and friendship — to the squad.

“One thing I’ve always preached — and I’ve talked to the girls about what it means — actually playing sports is just one part of athletics,” Watts said. “We try to teach the girls that out there, they represent our school and our community and their family. I want them to understand that I hope they love this team and this sport and representing our community and school as much as William does.”

“He’s our favorite fan that’s ever going to be around,” Kendall Stoffel added. “We play for him, because we know he’s going to be upset if we lose, maybe even more than we will. He is a part of this team.”

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, or follow him @RPritt on Twitter